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Citizens of Romania and Bulgaria can now work without restrictions across the European Union.
The two countries are the poorest in the EU and their citizens’ rights to work and claim benefits were limited for the first seven years of their EU membership.
Some in the wealthier countries fear that because those restrictions have been eased, there may be mass migration from Romania and Bulgaria into wealthier member nations.
The BBC’s Mark Lowen joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the EU’s decision.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW.
The European Union is kicking off 2014 with some big changes. Greece now holds the EU's rotating presidency, giving the recession-wrecked country a chance to make a more persuasive case for some relief from stern austerity measures Greece had to accept in exchange for a multibillion-dollar bailout. EU is also lifting work restrictions on its poorest countries, Bulgaria and Romania.
The BBC's Mark Lowen joins us from Bucharest. So, Mark, tell us about those work restrictions?
MARK LOWEN: Well, these are temporary controls that were imposed in 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. And they were imposed by nine members of the European Union, including Britain, Germany, France and others, in order to prevent a mass migration influx of workers from Romania and Bulgaria to other countries. So the Romanians and Bulgarians in these last seven years could go to other EU members if they were working in school shortage areas or if they're working in seasonal agricultural jobs and the like. But they would not able to simply go and pick up and try to find a job. Now, that being(ph) - these restrictions would be lifted, so that means that Romanians and Bulgarians can actually work freely in any other EU member state.
CHAKRABARTI: And I'm seeing that that mass migration, as you were mentioning, may end up actually happening, that buses from Bulgaria and Romania are booked solid this month. And an airline - at least one - has doubled the number of flights, say, to the U.K. And all those seats are booked as well.
LOWEN: This is a story, Meghna, where we - you got to be very, very careful to distance what some kind of sensationalist media headlines have written and, actually, the reality on the ground. I'm here in Bucharest, and I have to say that we are not seeing, at all, some of the kind of wild headlines that have been screamed by parts of the tabloid press in the U.K. and elsewhere and parts of the (unintelligible) establishment.
It is by no means the case it becomes a hordes of Romanians are about to board flights and buses to the U.K. or to Germany and France. We - when we were in Bucharest airport, no extra flights or plans to the U.K. International bus station here in Bucharest, only one bus company says it's going to triple its bus services to the U.K. in case of high demand. But this is not the same situation as a decade ago, when so many hundreds of thousands actually left from Poland and other Eastern European countries.
CHAKRABARTI: Mark, on that part, let me ask - I mean, this seems to be one of the fundamental conflicts between the politics and the economics of the European Union, that politically there maybe interests in some of the richer countries to make a lot of hay out of the mass migration of low-cost labor. But economically, isn't that one of - reportedly one of the strengths of a union, an economic union across Europe? That, you know, labor should be able to move without much friction.
LOWEN: You're absolutely right. Freedom of movement is one of the fundamental principles in enshrined in the European Union. And Romanians say it is absolutely right that they'd be given freedom work and travel as every other EU has. But, you know, in countries like Britain where you have a kind of battle really within the business establishment between the pro-Europeans and the anti-Europeans, that is a kind of classic rift within the conservative party, which is partly the governing coalition in the U.K.
This idea of possible movements of Romanians and Bulgarians westward has absolutely exposed the rifts about Europe and has exposed the questions of what sort of European Union Britain especially wants to be in. The critics of the British government's approach towards this in which they're trying to impose new restrictions say, well, actually, if you are not prepared to accept and honor a fundamental principle of the EU, which is that freedom of movement and freedom of work, perhaps Britain should not be in the European Union altogether.
So that is why this is not simply a story about a few million or a few thousand Romanians and Bulgarians going westwards. It is absolutely goes to the heart of each country's relationship with the European Union itself.
CHAKRABARTI: The BBC's Mark Lowen speaking to us from Bucharest. Mark, thank you so much.
LOWEN: A pleasure and happy New Year.
CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.